Thought Leadership

Big vs little

By Colin Walls

I have written before about my lack of understanding of some of the basic assumptions of the Western business world. Ignorance tends to result in a desire to challenge things [ever listen to phone-in programs?] and I am no exception. Some recent experiences have led me to think about this matter again.

Where do you buy stuff from? The answer to that will depend upon your lifestyle and where you live, but, for most people in the Western world, the answer will be some combination of shops and the Internet. Putting aside online shopping, even though I am a very enthusiastic Internet shopper myself, I want to consider the choice of businesses that we have, from which to make purchases, and how we decide between them …

For most of us, the location where we choose to live is a compromise, driven by numerous factors, including economic, logistical and aesthetic. Some people prefer to live in the country and accept that access to many resources requires a drive in the car. Others like the bustle of a big city, where a car may be an encumbrance. Some years ago, I realized that I am at home in a small town – somewhere less impersonal than a big city, but not in the middle of nowhere. I moved to my current house about 4 months ago and it fits my needs almost perfectly. Within walking distance I have just about everything that I need: theater, cinema, library, railway station, wide open spaces and, of course, shops. A few steps away, the shops can readily supply my everyday needs. A slightly longer walk gives access to almost anything else. But how do I decide which shops to use?

I do find myself in a quandary. The supermarkets, which are mostly national or international chains, offer a very wide choice of product, high quality items if you want them, good prices and a very efficient shopping environment with long opening hours. The one nearest to my house is actually a modest sized Co-Op, where the staff are friendly and I know they are not worshiping their shareholders at the customers’ expense. But I still feel that I should use the smaller stores, as I would be sad to see them disappear. The fruit and vegetable shop is always a pleasure to visit, with excellent fresh, mostly local, produce. I always have a pleasant conversation with the owners. But they cost more. And I am often the only customer. I am not optimistic about their future. The butcher’s is a similar story, along with quite a few other small businesses that are, I believe, just hanging on by a thread. Am I being nostalgic about a golden age [that never really existed], where shopping was a rewarding social activity and everyone felt a sense of ownership for these small stores? Or should I just accept that we live in the 21st Century and move on with the times? I am going to continue to enjoy having the choice and carry on using the small local shops, as much as I can, and use the supermarket to fill in the gaps.

I ran into the same problem recently in a different context. I wanted some work done on my house – replacing old, draughty, environmentally-unfriendly windows. I had a choice: I could use a large national company or a small local firm. The national company tell me that they are unequivocally the best, because they have the resources to be so. They say that they have been around for many years and are likely to stay in business, and be there to support me, for many more. They say that a local company may be here today, but gone tomorrow. Hence they can charge a bit more and are rather inflexible about their installation schedules. The local guy is indeed cheaper. He seems to know his product rather better that the salesman from the national. They can do the installation in a way that suits me. Their office is a mile away, so, if I need support, they can easily drop by. They were also recommended by a friend, who has just had some windows done. This is quite a large purchasing decision – I am spending more than I last paid for a new car – so I have deliberated extensively. The local guy is getting my business. Have I made the right choice?


0 thoughts about “Big vs little
  • Interesting thoughts, Colin!

    I think you made the right decision based on the best information you could get and attempting to support your local business(es) is certainly admirable. Better to give business to whose who will feel the impact of gaining your business and hopefully truly appreciate it.

    I grew up in small town, and having experienced “big business” service (or lack thereof) vs. “mom and pop” stores, along with every level in between since then, I think I can comment of things I’ve seen.

    Much like you I do enjoy supporting the local businesses, because they do need the income and quite often the service is more relaxed, personal, and can at times fulfill special requests for their customers.

    However on occasion I’ve seen lousy service or simply bland, non-competitive small businesses that simply died away. Case in point a store where the owner is never present, and has no motivation to keep items in stock, won’t order items for customers, and prices or simply too high. With a rotten attitude, to boot. In that case I spent money at the big store.

    I’m not sure how it is in your country, but unfortunately here in the USA due to plagues of “strip development” where chain stores are built along the main highways, etc., typically small-town America has died. Areas that were once hubs of local businesses that supplied most everything with warm customer service are now just memories.

    Quite depressing to go back to my hometown, where nothing is left of downtown except a lot of empty storefronts and peeling paint. Everything’s out on the strip shopping centers and in the “big-box” stores.

    Basically I’m saying when possible and if it makes sense, people should support the local guy. At least think about where the money goes and who actually cares about your business.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at